By choosing, reportedly, to decline Australia’s request of participating as an official observer in the multilateral Malabar maritime exercise to be undertaken by India, Japan, and the United States in July, New Delhi is handing over a quasi-walkover to China in the strategic games, as they unfold, in its backyard.
Australia is known to have taken up discussions vis-à-vis the involvement of the Royal Australian Navy in Exercise Malabar with India since 2015. For that matter, during a visit to Tokyo in April this year, Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne publicly acknowledged Canberra’s desire to join the naval manoeuvres, stating, “Australia is very interested in a quadrilateral engagement with India, Japan and the United States.”
Placing Australia and Japan’s centrality shall define India’s strategic sagacity, as it foresees the emerging strategic scenario developing in the Indo-Pacific. Given India’s economic footprint and the charter of its maritime interests, the notion of the greater Indo-Pacific has begun to eclipse the limited sphere of influence of the Indian Ocean.
India’s growing maritime thrust towards the Indo-Pacific did seem to find the correct direction, with the first ever India-Australia joint naval drills including anti-submarine warfare and coordinated anti-submarine drills held in the Bay of Bengal in September 2015, and the second bilateral naval war games called Exercise AUSINDEX, scheduled this month. However, the decision of keeping Australia at an arm’s length, when it came to expanding the scope by means of the multilateral naval Malabar initiative, will eventually prove a dampener to Delhi’s long-term Indo-Pacific strategy.
As all this unfolds, Beijing, in a gradual, yet consistent manner continues to engulf India—both in its land and maritime borders, through its officially pronounced “Belt and Road” Initiative, which has a solid strategic undercurrent, while hiding behind the mask of being a mere economic initiative. China, not just is expanding its presence and deterrent in its near seas, but is looking towards integrating with the Indian Ocean at large, through overland and maritime corridors of the Belt and Road Initiative.
Sooner, or later, India will have to make prudent, yet hard, choices, whilst pursuing a sovereign foreign policy path and undertake decisions that best suit its national security interests. Given its 7,500 km coastline, 1,200 islands and 2.4 million sq km Exclusive Economic Zone, India’s reorientation and demonstration of being a key security partner for the region, got furtherance with the 2001 decision of establishing the country’s first Tri-Service Andaman and Nicobar Command in the southeast corner of the bay—lying just 90 miles (145 kilometres) from Indonesia’s Aceh Province, bordering the strategically vital Strait of Malacca. Thinking on similar lines, Australia too, is debating plans to develop two Indian Ocean territories — the Cocos (Keeling) and Christmas Islands. These initiatives highlight the mutual maritime interests and stakes that India and Australia share in the larger Indo-Pacific.
The ominous shadow of China has been looming large on the “Quad” since 2007, when Australia’s then government led by Kevin Rudd took a call of withdrawing from the exercises and accompanying security talks, following negative feelers received from Beijing. Today, a decade later, the situation is no different. China has found success in goading India to turn down Australia’s request of joining the Malabar trilateral. In an official press briefing, Beijing welcomed India’s reported decision, saying the security concerns of the different parties should be taken into account while holding such drills, and stated, “…India is also clear about the consideration behind this behaviour.”
During the October 2015 Indo-Japan-US Malabar trilateral, China’s tone was rather subdued on the issue of Japanese participation. Unlike earlier instances, when it issued a demarche to protest Japanese participation in Indo-US naval drills, Beijing seemingly sensed the changing direction of strategic winds in the Indo-Pacific, and reacted in a more cautious and moderate manner. Departing from its past stand of officially protesting against trilateral naval exercises between India, Japan and the US, Beijing instead stated during an official press briefing, “Countries around the world have all kinds of activities and cooperation…you are worrying too much when you ask whether the joint naval drill is aimed at China…”
Tokyo, Canberra and New Delhi should look towards capitalising on the positive momentum of their strategic and defence relationship, deepening engagement and increasing consistency and complexity of activities. If India is serious about consolidating its special relationships in the Indo-Pacific, then Japan and Australia, for sure, will have to find greater prominence, both at the bilateral and multilateral levels, in Delhi’s regional security quest. The decision of adding Australia to the India-Japan-US Malabar trilateral should affirmatively be taken by India, if not immediately, then at the next available opportunity.
Dr Monika Chansoria is a Tokyo-based Resident Visiting Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA).